Marching for Oppression

Over the past few months, we've seen amazing and inspiring demonstrations of people power erupting across the Middle East, toppling dictatorships that have been in place for decades. It's far too soon to say what form of government will emerge from these movements - whether they'll give rise to true democracies, or whether new dictatorships will replace the old - and the unwelcome news that Egypt's transitional military government has just sentenced a blogger to prison shows that it will take far more than toppling one dictator to break the old, entrenched habits of oppression and illiberalism. But whatever the future holds, the success of the protests has shown, at least for one shining moment, what free human beings can achieve when they cooperate to defy tyranny.

But there's a dark side to people power as well. America's founders knew that rule by a mob is no better than rule by a dictator, which is why they built so many counter-majoritarian safeguards into the Constitution. Democracy is an essential ingredient in a free society, but it's no panacea, especially when the majority of people are openly prejudiced toward minorities. This past week, we saw this vividly in Bangladesh:

Dozens of people have been injured as Bangladesh police battled Islamists protesting against new government policies aimed at giving women equal inheritance rights.

The violence came as the hardline Islami Oikyo Jote, a coalition of Islamic groups, enforced a nationwide general strike on Monday, demanding the government institute Islamic law and scrap policies aimed at giving women greater rights to property, employment and education.

Although Bangladesh's population is about 90% Muslim, its laws are relatively secular by the standards of the region. Its current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is a woman, and it's invested heavily in education and job training for women, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in Half the Sky [p.238], which has created a stronger civil society and a thriving export industry, part of the reason it's far more stable than nearby Pakistan.

However, for Bangladesh's overwhelming Muslim majority, laws relating to marriage, family and inheritance are based on the principles of sharia. Among other things, these laws mandate that daughters inherit only half the share given to sons. Sheikh Hasina's government has proposed changing this to give women an equal share, which enraged the Islamic political parties who turned out to demand that sexism remain enshrined in the country's family law. A main highway in Dhaka, a city of 10 million people, was blockaded by the strike until riot police dispersed it, and schools and businesses throughout the country remain closed.

This is what Islamist political movements stand for, this is how they want the world to see them: the spectacle of people marching not to end oppression, but to perpetuate oppression - not to demand that justice be done, but to demand that injustice continue to be done. The contrast is stark, especially when compared to the determined displays of national pride and secular unity in the popular uprisings that have toppled dictators. People joining together regardless of their beliefs are usually demanding something beneficial, some shared notion of rights; people marching together who are all of one belief, especially when that belief is in the majority, ought to be immediately suspect.

This ought to be a lesson to us about the terrible importance of secularism, for all human beings in general but for women in particular. Around the world, there are religious groups - not just Muslims - to whom modernity is meaningless, who would gladly drag us all back to medieval mores if given the chance. As societies become more prosperous, their influence tends to wane, but Bangladesh is still far from that point. The government needs to press on with their plans to give full and equal rights to all human beings, because only in this way can they leave the past behind and create a stable and secure society where the voices of religious extremism will no longer be a threat.

April 13, 2011, 6:35 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• Greta Christina posts her completed list of atheists of color.

• In early 1981, Carl Sagan sent this letter to the Explorers' Club - an international society dedicated to scientific exploration - regarding their men-only admission policy. Several months later, the first female members were admitted. (HT: Geek Feminism Blog)

• Johann Hari writes about "the myth of the panicking disaster victim" and what it implies for humanity's inherent moral sense.

• Catholic anti-abortion groups are trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to "save" a 13-month-old infant with a severe neurological disorder who is not and likely never will be conscious, after Canadian doctors proposed removing his breathing tube. Peter Singer asks if this is the most "pro-life" use of all that money.

• Following a devastating grand jury report, the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia has suspended 21 priests named as child molestation suspects. Also, Maureen Dowd profiles the first U.S. district attorney to criminally charge church officials for covering up child abuse - including sickening details from the grand jury report describing exactly what they helped to cover up.

• In a welcome and long-overdue development, the British government proposes reforming the country's archaic and plaintiff-friendly libel laws to stop abuses such as "libel tourism". (See my earlier post on this.)

March 22, 2011, 8:01 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments

Movie Review: Agora

When I wrote my review of Creation last year, a commenter suggested I see Agora, the 2009 film by Alejandro Amenábar about Hypatia of Alexandria. It took me a long time to get around to doing that, but I've finally seen it, and it was worth the wait. It only had a very limited theatrical release in the U.S., but if you have Netflix or similar, I strongly encourage you to see it.

Agora is set in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late fourth century CE. Egypt is a Roman province in this age, and Alexandria is one of its crown jewels: polyglot, multicultural, an important maritime port, and a center of pagan learning and philosophy. One of its foremost citizens is Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz), a female philosopher who's heir to the Greek intellectual tradition and renowned for her expertise in mathematics, physics and astronomy. Famous and influential men from throughout the province come to her academy to attend her lectures and demonstrations. As beautiful as she is brilliant, she also attracts her share of admirers, including her slave Davus (Max Minghella) and one of her students, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who later becomes the provincial governor.

But in Hypatia's time, the Roman Empire is changing rapidly. Christianity, once a despised and outlawed sect, has converted the emperor and is rapidly growing in numbers and power. Its preachers, especially the murderous fanatic Cyril (Sami Samir) aren't shy about exerting their newfound authority: against the city's Jews; against the philosophers, whom they view as idol-worshipping adherents of a degenerate pagan tradition; and especially against women who defy their biblically ordained role by speaking in public and teaching men. The confrontation between Hypatia and Orestes on one hand and Cyril on the other comes inevitably to a head, and though I won't give any spoilers, if you know about the historical Hypatia, you probably have some idea of how it ends.

Although the script takes some liberties, which is only to be expected, I was surprised by how closely it sticks to historical fact: including Hypatia's close relationship with the governor Orestes, the amazing-but-true fact that one of her pupils, Synesius, later became a Christian bishop, and the memorably revolting way she rejects a potential suitor. Also, if you expect to see the Library of Alexandria engulfed in flames, think again: our best accounts say that it was destroyed before Hypatia's time, and the movie accurately reflects this. (Hypatia and the other philosophers live and teach in another building, a pagan temple/academy called the Serapeum.)

The biggest departure from history is its depiction of Hypatia as on the verge of proving the heliocentric theory of the solar system. As Richard Carrier points out in his review (some spoilers), the real Hypatia wouldn't have been as empirically minded as this - she belonged to a philosophical school that largely disdained experimentation, although there's no doubt that she was a gifted mathematician and astronomer, and all the theoretical pieces were in place in the philosophies of the time for experiments like the ones she's shown to perform.

The movie also hints that she was an atheist, which the real Hypatia wouldn't have been. However, Agora isn't by any means a black-and-white, Christianity-versus-science polemic. The pagan philosophers are depicted as just as vengeful, violent, and touchy about insults to their religion as the Christians were, and it's clear that Cyril's hatred of Hypatia used her science only as a pretext; the real reason for his antipathy is as a way to hurt his political rival, Orestes. And vicious as he is, he isn't treated as representative of all of Christianity - other Christian characters, such as Synesius, are on Hypatia's side.

Nevertheless, without treating all Christians as evil, the film subtly and powerfully conveys how the immoralities of Christian theology made this story and many others like it inevitable. There's a brutally effective scene in which Cyril boxes in both Orestes and Synesius by reading from the Bible the verses forbidding a woman to teach or have authority over a man, and demanding that they kneel and swear faith in scripture (implicitly denouncing Hypatia).

Although my wife and I both loved this movie, the reviews were decidedly mixed, which I think is because it confused critics' expectations by breaking with convention. In the beginning, it seems the script is setting up a love triangle between Hypatia, Davus and Orestes - but Hypatia herself never expresses any interest, and that aspect of the story is dropped when the political conflict begins. (Just think, a female character who's not depicted as primarily interested in romance! That's a daring departure from Hollywood orthodoxy, even if the film unfortunately doesn't pass the Bechdel test due to its lack of any other women.)

All in all, this was a beautiful, tragic story that's all the more powerful for being essentially true. Carl Sagan once wrote that, if not for the descent of the religious dark ages that crushed rational inquiry and stifled human progress, we might have reached the stars hundreds of years ago. Agora is a moving testament to that, and a reminder of how much we lost and how long it's taken to regain it. More than that, it's a tribute to the life of an extraordinary woman, and a celebration of the rational principles that she defended and that have always stood for what's best in humanity. If you have the chance to see it, you won't be disappointed.

March 21, 2011, 5:41 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink72 comments

What Comes Next For the Middle East?

The last few weeks in the Middle East have been a story of extraordinary courage and heroism. With dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia lying in ruins and the democratic revolt now spreading to Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, it's not too early to start thinking about what will come next.

The omnipresent fear in Western media is that the newly free countries will be taken over by an Islamist majority. This isn't an unreasonable concern (although it hardly justifies the West's decades of supporting brutal, repressive dictators just because they weren't theocrats). However, I think that at least in these two countries, there's reason for optimism.

As this article points out, and as I've observed previously, one of the newest and most surprising things about the protests was the huge and crucial role played by women. Tunisia, in particular, had a strong tradition of women's rights - its female citizens were among the first of any Arab country to gain the vote - and high rates of female education and literacy. The ex-dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali gambled that this liberality would keep people pacified, but it had the opposite effect: the educated populace was more able to see his corruption for what it was and less willing to tolerate it, and women joined the marches in vast numbers. Tunisia's women played such a crucial role in the revolution that even the country's formerly exiled Islamists feel compelled to recognize their leadership:

Crowds of women in traditional Islamic dress welcomed the long-exiled leader of Tunisia's Ennahda movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, upon his return to the country Jan. 30.

But, as Radhia Nasraoui, a prominent Tunisian human rights lawyer points out, unlike the Taliban in 1996 or Iran's mullahs in 1979, Mr. Ghannouchi has felt compelled to repeatedly and publicly pledge to safeguard women's rights in recent weeks.

"It may be tactical, but the fact that he feels he has to talk this way is a pretty good indication that wanting to roll back women rights is no way to gain support in Tunisia right now," Ms. Nasraoui said.

Then there's Egypt. On the surface, there's less reason for optimism here. Before the revolution, aggressive sexual harassment of Egyptian women was routine and omnipresent, as dramatized by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab in his film 678. The savage sexual assault on Lara Logan in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall (whether by regime supporters or opponents will probably never be known) was a highly visible example of the brutality too often tolerated in Egyptian society.

But here, too, there are some green sprouts. Chief among these was the way that women fearlessly joined the crowds in Tahrir Square (and also see my earlier post):

Fatma Emam's mother accused her of wanting to be a man and threatened to disown her if the 28-year-old joined the protests in Tahrir Square. She went anyway.

"There are so many women who like me defied their families," Emam said after spending five days and four nights in downtown Cairo. "The revolution is not only taking place in Tahrir, it is taking place in every Egyptian house. It is the revolution of fighting the patriarch."

...The 25-year-old who helped spark the demonstrations with an online video, Asmaa Mahfouz, said her father refused to allow her to stay in the plaza after dark. "No girl of mine spends the night away from home," Mahfouz said he told her.

In the video, Mahfouz said: "I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square. Come down with us and demand your rights."

I know better than to believe that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahda have completely given up their theocratic aims, whatever they say in public. But it also seems clear that they're biding their time, not wanting to move openly unless they believe they have a good chance of success - and if the Middle East's young secular revolutionaries remain vigilant, the theocrats may never get that chance. Now that Egypt's women have tasted real freedom, we can hope, they won't be quieted - they know perfectly well what they'd stand to lose from the imposition of sharia, and they have the confidence that comes of having toppled one dictatorship already.

This is why groups like the Taliban are so fanatically opposed to schools for girls. The way to keep people under your thumb is to keep them poor, isolated and ignorant - because only then can they be persuaded to believe that no change is ever possible. The more educated a nation's people are, the more they can look beyond their own circumstances to the wider world and imagine how things could be different. This is true for both men and women, but since patriarchal religions put special emphasis on controlling women's lives, women's education is particularly deadly to them. That's a lesson to keep in mind as these nations begin to rebuild themselves.

February 28, 2011, 1:52 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink10 comments

Exploring the Gender Disparity on Daylight Atheism

As part of my fifth anniversary post, I included a survey where I asked readers to list their gender and their age, mainly just to satisfy my own curiosity. The results of the age poll, to my pleased surprise, formed a very neat bell curve (I have more computer-savvy older readers than I had guessed!).

This wasn't the case with the gender survey, however. I was expecting there to be a gender disparity, and there was, but it was much larger than even I had anticipated. With the poll now closed, the final results stand at 81% male and 19% female, with about 1% who don't identify as belonging to either category.

Granted, this isn't a scientific poll, and there are lots of different factors that could have biased the results. Nevertheless, I think this huge gender disparity is a result that's in need of explanation, and like any good scientist, I'd like to propose several different hypotheses to test.

Hypothesis #1. There's a large male-female disparity in atheism generally, and the poll results simply reflect that fact.

This hypothesis is almost certainly part of the truth, but it can't be all of the truth. According to the ARIS researchers, the non-religious segment of the American population is about 60% male (the percentages may be different in other countries, but I expect that a majority of my readership is American). Thus, if my visitors were a good statistical sample of the population, I'd have expected that same 60-40 split. But the gender disparity on Daylight Atheism is greater than that, which means there must be some other cause at work.

Besides, this hypothesis doesn't really explain the gender disparity as much as reiterate it. Why is it true that nonbelievers are predominantly male?

Hypothesis #2. There's a male-female disparity on the Internet generally, and the poll results simply reflect that fact.

Again, I think this hypothesis is part of the explanation, but only a small part. To further satisfy my curiosity, I cross-referenced the data for people who answered both polls, which yielded an interesting pattern:

Male Female
< 18 10 3
18-21 50 14
22-30 166 46
31-40 105 17
41-50 73 17
51-60 65 11
> 60 42 6

As you can see, although there's a gender disparity in every age group, it's substantially larger among respondents above the age of 30. Below that age, men outnumber women by about 3-to-1, while above that age, it's more like 6-to-1.

According to Pew surveys, it's true that more older men than older women are online, but this only applies to those above the age of 65. In all younger age groups, the percentages are virtually identical. Therefore, it's probably not a general, society-wide pattern in internet use that produced the discrepancy on my site.

Hypothesis #3. Men were more likely than women to vote in this poll, producing skewed results.

This possibility could be generalized to the hypothesis that women are socially conditioned to be less likely to speak up, to identify themselves, and to make their voices heard, especially when in the presence of men - something often noted by feminists. But while I think this may be a problem in general, I'm skeptical that it played a major role on this blog.

As I said, this poll wasn't scientific, and it's possible that differences in self-reporting might have further tilted the outcome. But on a blog, everyone's comments occupy an equal space; no one can interrupt, shout down or talk over anyone else. It's not even obvious what gender other commenters are, unless people deliberately comment under their real names or choose a gendered pseudonym. Whatever unequal social pressures may exist on men and women, could they really extend to something as simple as clicking a button on a poll?

Hypothesis #4. Something about the subject matter or content of this site, in general, appeals to men more than to women, or makes women feel as if they're less welcome than men.

This is the hypothesis that I find the most plausible, and the one that troubles me most. Am I doing something to make atheist women feel unwelcome or uninterested?

If so, I'd like to fix that. But I don't know what that thing might be, and I don't expect it would be easy for me to discern it. After all, it's difficult to notice your own presuppositions, except in the rare cases where circumstances are designed to bring them to the fore. But once they're pointed out to you, it's usually possible to deliberately make an effort to compensate for them.

That's why, if you have an opinion about what I should be doing differently, I'd like to hear it. I'm especially interested to hear from female readers, although - and I mean no offense by this - you're the outliers!

If we can come up with an answer to this question - if we can determine what a blogger like me should be saying or doing differently to appeal to women as well as men - this information will be beneficial not just to this site, but to the broader atheist movement, which is still struggling with issues of fairness and gender balance. By ensuring that we're framing our message to appeal to all segments of the population equally, we can make the secular community larger and more influential, and in the long run, this can only be a good thing for us.

February 19, 2011, 6:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink80 comments

On Taking Offense, and the Easiness Thereof

I wanted to point out this comment from an ongoing discussion, because it's such a perfect example of the kind of Christian privilege that American believers take for granted:

Well, I guess you atheists are more easily offended than me. I do not see how a statue of the Ten Commandments makes anyone a second-class citizen.

It's certainly easy, isn't it, for a Christian to proclaim that he wouldn't be offended by government-sponsored denigration of his beliefs, because he's never experienced it. I'm guessing this commenter has never had a stake in important litigation where, in order to have his case heard, he has to pass through courthouse doors beneath a massive sign reading "THOU SHALT NOT BELIEVE IN GOD". He's never had to buy and sell things using currency that reads "In Atheism We Trust", or be expected to pledge his patriotism with an affirmation containing the words "one nation under no gods". He's never had to lobby for his rights before a Congress where only one member is an outspoken Christian and most of the rest proclaim that Christians are vile radicals who are unfit for public office. He's never been told by his elected officials that he has no right to have them represent him, or told by one of the top jurists in the land that the law "permits the disregard" of his viewpoint.

But atheists do face equivalents of all these bigotries, and more besides. Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses are part of this, and are a reminder of the countless ways in which American believers consign atheists to second-class status.

And on that note, I have to comment on a related topic. There's a great, thriving atheist community on Reddit, and I've gotten a lot of hits and feedback from posting my articles there. They've even accomplished some truly great and tangible things, like raising over $40,000 for Doctors Without Borders. It's never occurred to me that any atheist would feel unwelcome there, at least until I saw these two posts on Jen McCreight's blog.

Whenever I see that I got an uptick in traffic from reddit, I'm always afraid to go check the link. Because inevitably when someone links to my blog, many of the comments will be disparaging remarks about my gender or looks. Hell, even some of the positive comments are about my gender or looks, which are still annoying - can we please comment about the content, and not my boobs, please?

As you might expect, this resulted in a flood of comments from outraged males. Quite a few of these explained that for the grievous act of having a blog which is openly female, which doesn't try to hide that the author is a woman, she should expect to be the target of sexist leering. Here's one stellar specimen from Reddit:

Author at the Presidio

Fig. 1: I will not have my opinions dismissed for posting this.

It's the equivalent of a woman dressing up like a prostitute, giving a dissertation on Lawrence Krauss's "A Universe From Nothing" while dancing on a stripping pole, and then being surprised that someone mentions something other than Krauss's speech.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Jen's picture includes the top third of her torso, and that this is equated to "dressing up like a prostitute" and "dancing on a stripping pole". There are plenty of popular male atheists who have pictures of themselves prominently featured on their blogs, but who (I'm guessing) hardly ever have this used against them as an excuse to dismiss or belittle their arguments. It's women and women alone who can expect condescension and hostility merely for making it obvious what gender they are. Or as another Reddit poster put it:

You need thicker skin. It seems like you are looking to be victimized.

What this person obviously meant to say was, "By being openly female, you are looking to be victimized." It rather puts the lie to the other commenters who said they've never noticed sexism on Reddit, doesn't it?

Of course, there will always be emotionally stunted trolls who think it's the height of wit to make sexist or racist comments and then chortle heartily if they get an outraged response. The internet, like every other human gathering place, has its troglodytes, its bigots and its yobs (which is a fantastic Britishism and I'm officially stealing it). The real issue is how the larger community responds. Does it agree that sexism is unacceptable and say so firmly? Or does it deny, minimize, or attempt to deflect responsibility? Does it belittle the woman who's targeted, tell her that it's "no big deal" and she should just "get over it", or worst of all, tell her that she brought it on herself and call her a sexist for pointing it out? (This is the kind of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I schoolyard taunting that said trolls think of as brilliant repartee.)

This is how we make the atheist community larger and stronger: when someone feels unwelcome, we take the time to find out why, and if there's something happening that makes them feel excluded, we fix it. If you instead pour scorn on the person who speaks up, if you call them thin-skinned, easily offended, a chronic troublemaker - this is the response of bigotry, and since it's something atheists have so often been on the receiving end of, we ought to understand that. If we want the atheist movement to be a coherent force that can effectively challenge theocratic intrusion and religious privilege, we need to stop pushing people away, and start making sure that anyone who's on our side feels welcome among us.

February 5, 2011, 11:21 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink55 comments

Women Take the Helm in Egypt

I wrote about the massive uprising in Egypt earlier this week, but events are moving so fast that I have to write again, and by the time you read this post, it may well be outdated. The latest development is that the Mubarak administration is apparently sending armed and organized gangs of thugs out onto the streets to masquerade as counter-protesters, probably in the hopes of provoking a violent confrontation that would force the army to intervene. American journalists including Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour have already been assaulted.

That notwithstanding, I continue to be enormously impressed by how peaceful and how resolute the anti-Mubarak protests have been. I also note with pleasure that women are actively taking a leadership role, especially a famous YouTube video by 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz that played a pivotal role in the January 25 initial uprising:

"As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope." That was what Ms. Mahfouz had to say in a video she posted online more than two weeks ago. She spoke straight to the camera and held a sign saying she would go out and protest to try to bring down Mr. Mubarak's regime.

This was certainly not the first time a young activist used the Internet -- later virtually shut down by the government -- as a tool to organize and mobilize, but it departed from the convenient, familiar anonymity of online activism.

More than that, it was a woman who dared put a face to the message, unfazed by the possibility of arrest for her defiance. "Do not be afraid," she said.

The major role women played in the genesis of the protests is probably part of the reason why they've been so unusually egalitarian, as outside observers found to their surprise. As reporter Sarah Topol wrote for Slate:

Egypt has a sexual harassment problem. In a 2008 study, 86 percent of women said they had been harassed on Egypt's streets — any woman walking through a crowd of men in Egypt braces to get groped. But in the square, crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, men apologized if they so much as bumped into you. After wandering around the protests for days, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't been groped, a constant annoyance when I'm faced with large crowds in Cairo.

And in the square itself, women have been taking a leadership role as well - organizing checkpoints to search newcomers for weapons, and continuing to speak out for themselves:

Soheir Sadi was one of them. This morning, she sat in the square with her 14-year-old daughter. They had come every day since the protests started on Jan. 25. "I came seeking my rights, like any Egyptian. I rent my apartment, I don't own it, and I can't afford food. What kind of life is that? And for my children?" she asks. "I wasn't afraid for my daughter, because everyone is family in the square. We are all real men standing up for ourselves, even the girls. And now they have learned that they can protect themselves like men."

It's still too early to say if Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will co-opt the Egyptian revolution to their own ends, but reports like these give me hope that they won't. From what I've heard, the marchers are largely young and secular, far more concerned with their national than their religious identity, and seeking reasonable, this-worldly goals like good jobs and a fairer distribution of wealth. Any religious movement that tried to hijack the protesters' energy and passion to impose sharia law, they'd surely resist as fiercely as they've resisted Mubarak's autocratic rule. And every woman like Asmaa Mahfouz who has the courage to throw off her culture's stifling prejudices about gender roles and demand liberty is a living repudiation of theocracy. Is it too ambitious to hope that some of them could ultimately sit in the Parliament of a free, secular and democratic Egypt?

UPDATE: Further thoughts.

February 3, 2011, 6:42 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink12 comments

The Guardians of Tone
Women's Anti-Suffrage Association

Image via.

I was tipped off to this excellent essay by a reader (thanks, bbk, even if it was unintentional!) and since it got buried in the comments on the other thread, I wanted to call special attention to it. It's about the virtues of anger, specifically with reference to the feminist movement, but it contains some valuable lessons that are applicable to atheism and other progressive social causes as well.

The one thing that absolutely terrifies a prejudiced majority is anger, no matter how righteous or how justified, from any oppressed or marginalized group. That's why any member of such a group who does express anger for any reason whatsoever will immediately be tarred with the standard, well-worn insults used to belittle and dismiss the speaker's concerns and equate their passion for justice to irrational insanity.

We should all be familiar with these labels by now. Feminists are crazed man-haters; atheists are rude venom-spewers who want to tear down the harmless beliefs that give people comfort; gays and lesbians are perverts and sex fiends; and heaven help you if you're a black person running for office who dares to suggest that maybe the treatment black people receive is somewhat less than fully equal. That's why Barack Obama only won the presidency by being one of the coolest and most conciliatory presidents in American history, and even so, the right-wing noise machine still writes attack books with titles like The Roots of Obama's Rage. (When a black person with some connection to Obama did express anger at something, the soundbites, predictably stripped of context, circulated in the media for weeks.)

The guardians of tone always stand ready to demonize any member of a minority who displays anger or passion, no matter how well-founded it is in actual, ongoing injustices. The only way to avoid their slanders is to bend over backwards to be mild and inoffensive, not rock the boat, and not make the majority in any way uncomfortable. You'll get bonus points if you're a member of the group in question who's willing to affirm popular prejudices and piously wag your finger at activists for being too zealous or "extremist" - Fox News and the Templeton Foundation, to name two, will richly reward their useful pawns. Religious apologists, also, will fulsomely praise atheists who publicly wish they were believers.

The reason why they do this is obvious: because a movement led by its least ambitious, most conciliatory members isn't going to get anything done. The guardians of tone are really the guardians of popular prejudice, concern-trolling for all they're worth in an effort to prevent us from making anything more than cosmetic changes. They counsel us to be meek, to be mild, to be small and bland and inoffensive, because that makes it much easier to ignore us altogether. Suzanne Moore's essay argues that feminism has, in part, fallen victim to this:

Nowadays, saying bad stuff about men is not how feminism conducts itself. We all lurve men. We are all smiley for fear of being labelled man-haters. And what is the result of this people-pleasing, ultra-feminine, crowd-sourced sexual politics? Sod all. Reasonably sitting around waiting for equality while empowering oneself with some silicone implants does not really seem to have worked wonders, does it ladeez?

Conversely, the way to rouse large numbers of people into action is to get them angry, to make them aware of the evils that are being committed against them or in their name. Anger motivates people, and when properly directed and focused, it makes them unignorable. The guardians of tone know this, which is why they try to belittle and disperse it. A reform movement lacking any tangible sense of anger at the injustice it's trying to end is like a person without a circulatory system. Of course, those who most visibly embody that progressive anger come in for the most demonization:

God, how I miss those troublesome women like Andrea Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone. They may have been batty as hell but they had passion. And balls. They were properly furious at the horrible things men do to women. Who in their right mind, male or female, isn't?

And possibly my favorite line from the whole essay:

We need fire in our belly for this fight, not a bleedin' gastric bypass.

This doesn't mean that a successful progressive movement has no room for diplomats, or for other "polite and smiley" advocates. On the contrary, we need people who can represent us to the existing power brokers. But diplomats by themselves are like people stranded on a melting ice floe, negotiating for a few extra moments of footing. They offer no reason to change the status quo. When diplomats are backed up by a passionate, angry and motivated crowd tugging furiously on the far end of the Overton window - that's a combination that can achieve a lot. Diplomats of any stripe are far more effective when they can credibly claim that, if you won't deal with them, the alternative is unleashing the dogs of war.

That's why, when it's justified by outrageous unfairness, we atheists and progressive activists should get angry - in a focused way, at the people who are responsible - and ignore the squawks of the guardians of tone and their well-paid pawns. They only want to silence us, and we don't answer to them. And if we follow this advice and let our passion guide us, the day will soon come when these officious cultural enforcers will be cast down for good.

January 28, 2011, 6:23 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink201 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• Witchcraft is now a recognized profession in Romania, subjecting its practitioners to income tax. Witches who are unhappy about this are responding pretty much like you'd expect.

• A female activist in Israel faces prison time for praying at the Wailing Wall. The telling quote:

"The religious world in Israel has become more and more extreme," Mrs Hoffman said. "Much like in Islam, religiosity is now measured by the distances at which women are kept from society."

• A 10-year-old girl in Canada becomes the youngest amateur astronomer ever to discover a supernova. (If you want to help, did you know that astronomers are enlisting citizen volunteers to classify photos of galaxies?)

• Swami Nithyananda, a popular Hindu guru, admits that he paid a blackmailer 1.4 million pounds to not release a sex tape of him and an Indian actress.

• High-ranking ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis is writing a tell-all book.

• The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Milwaukee files for chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of settlements for victims of pedophile priests. Too bad the whole organization isn't being liquidated and sold off to pay its creditors.

• The British Medical Journal concludes that Andrew Wakefield's paper linking vaccination to autism, which single-handedly gave rise to the anti-vaccination movement, was "an elaborate fraud" based on falsified data.

January 8, 2011, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

If blogging was my full-time job, I'd probably have written a post about each of these stories! As it is, I leave you with some food for thought - and there's a virtual banquet this week:

• In the U.K., more and more decaying churches are being converted into homes - a fitting use for these still-beautiful buildings, in my opinion.

• According to a study in the journal Pediatrics, gay teens are more likely to be punished by schools and courts than their straight peers. One wonders if something similar holds true for young atheists; there are plenty of places in the country where I wouldn't doubt it in the slightest.

• And on that note, a mind-boggling story about former Confederate states celebrating secession - in one city, there will be a parade featuring "a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy" - that's being cast as a celebration of "self-government" and "states' rights". In reality, what the Confederates were mainly fighting for was their right, often justified by religion, to buy and sell human beings as property. A hundred and fifty years later, it's astonishing that so many people still refuse to admit their ancestors were in the wrong.

Divorce rates are skyrocketing in Iran as Iranian women, increasingly assertive and educated despite living in a brutally patriarchal society, fight back against unwanted marriages and cruel husbands.

• Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks show how Ireland's government caved in to Vatican pressure to grant immunity to church officials suspected of complicity in child rape.

• A council of rabbis in a Lubavitcher Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn have issued a decree forbidding believers to speak to the police, even to report a crime, without the permission of the rabbis.

• In San Francisco, a DMV employee was suspended after he sent a letter threatening hellfire to a transgender woman who applied to have her sex changed on her driver's license. It appears that he shared her name and address with his church without asking permission. It also appears that this is not the first time this employee has done this. Stories like this need to be better publicized - when bigots cry for "freedom of conscience" clauses that would permit them to refuse to do their job on religious grounds, this is what they're really demanding the right to do.

December 11, 2010, 1:51 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink7 comments

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